The Ultimate Gift: NJ Sharing Network

An unexpected trauma has occurred. The medical team has done its best for the patient, but all hope is lost. With recovery ruled out, organ donation becomes a possibility. That's when the Sharing Network steps in.

It was just another humid day in August, but Dr. Randall “Randy” Marc Giles was on top of the world.

The 43-year-old father of three was about to open a private surgical practice in Wayne. He had stopped at a friend’s house after unloading boxes at his new office when he started to feel funny; his speech was beginning to slur and his facial muscles weakened. A surgeon for a decade, he knew these were warning signs of a stroke. He needed to get to a hospital immediately.

An ambulance brought Randy to the emergency room at the Valley Hospital in Ridgewood. He went straight into surgery, but despite a neurosurgeon’s best efforts, Randy could not be saved. He had suffered from an intracerebral hemorrhage—a stroke in the brain most likely caused by hypertension. The family was told that Randy was being kept alive on ventilators because he was a registered organ donor.

Judge F. Michael Giles finds solace in the fact that his late son, Randall Marc Giles, was able to donate organs and tissues.

Judge F. Michael Giles finds solace in the fact that his late son, Randall Marc Giles, was able to donate organs and tissues. Photo by Allison Michael Orenstein

“That…was a tough day,” says Randy’s father, F. Michael Giles, a retired state Superior Court judge. “I think I’ve put some of it out of my mind.”

Randy had been diagnosed with diabetes a few years earlier and had always been a “big guy,” Giles says, but his loss was unexpected and left the family devastated. The one saving grace, Giles says, was that he was able to save lives one last time.

That’s where New Jersey Sharing Network comes in. After meeting with the family, a transplant team from the Sharing Network procured Randy’s organs and tissues.

Randy’s organs saved five lives; his tissue donation helped more than 50 others. That eased the pain of his family’s loss. “There really is no comfort that can be extended to your family,” says Giles, “except if you’re an organ donor.”

The New Jersey Sharing Network is a federally designated organ procurement organization (OPO) responsible for coordinating the recovery and transportation of organs and tissue. The nonprofit, located in New Providence, is the sole OPO for northern and most of central New Jersey, covering nearly 80 percent of the state based on population and hospital locations. Gift of Life Donor Program in Philadelphia handles southern New Jersey.

There are 58 such OPOs nationwide, all designated to work in tandem to coordinate organ and tissue recovery and transportation.

“We can recover a kidney in New Jersey and send it out to California, if that’s where the perfect match is,” says Jackie Lue Raia, assistant director of resource development for the Sharing Network. “We are literally saving and enhancing lives every day.”

Today, about 120,000 people are waiting for life-saving organ transplants nationwide. In New Jersey alone, about 5,000 lives are on hold  awaiting donations. Every 2 ½ days, a person in New Jersey dies while on the waiting list.

Donor names are listed on the walls of the Sharing Network building to honor those who gave the gift of life.

Donor names are listed on the walls of the Sharing Network building to honor those who gave the gift of life. Photo by Allison Michael Orenstein

Although 2.5 million people are registered donors in New Jersey, less than 1 percent of all imminent deaths in the state qualify for organ donation.

“We have between 200 and 400 potential organ donors in New Jersey every year out of an average 75,000 deaths in New Jersey,” says Oscar Colón, a clinical donation specialist who has been working at the Sharing Network for over 20 years. “That’s how rare and unique organ donation is.”

Most who qualify to donate organs have not been terminally ill; instead, they are individuals who have suffered an unexpected trauma—a car accident, a stroke, an aneurism or a fall—often resulting in brain injury.

When traumatic injury occurs, the victim may be unresponsive, but in some cases their organs continue to function until they are reached by emergency personnel or placed on a ventilator in the hospital. The patient must be on a ventilator or their organs must continue to function properly on their own to be a candidate for donation. If blood circulation halts, the organs begin to deteriorate and transplantation is no longer possible. Certain health conditions also may disqualify some patients from giving the gift of life.

When someone registers as a donor, he or she is entered into a database that can be accessed nationally. Registering acts as a legal record of that individual’s wish to donate. Those who meet all of the criteria can donate up to eight organs and various tissues. (Click to see an infographic.)

Illustration by Richard Lallish

Click for larger version.

If the patient has not registered or is under 18, the choice falls to the family. It is not an easy one. Donation is sometimes turned down by family members of unregistered patients due to misconceptions about donation, religious beliefs or an overall lack of education on the subject (Read about the myths of organ donation).

Whatever the situation, it’s tough on loved ones. Part of the Sharing Network’s mission is encouraging the living to talk about their wishes, which can make it easier on family, and the medical staff, when time is of the essence.

“When you register, it’s not enough to just put it on your license and say yes to donation,” says Lue Raia. “You have to tell the people that you care about what your choice is and that this is [your] expectation.”

The Sharing Network is also tasked with ensuring that the donation process is fast and seamless. This increases the chances of a successful transplantation.

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